Steve Chapman

Romney says he can't "understand why some environmental activists still consider nuclear power such a bogeyman." Hmmm. Maybe the prospect of uncontrolled leaks of deadly radiation across large geographic areas? Yeah, that could be it.

Other forms of energy, to be fair, carry dangers of their own. Coal mines have fatal accidents. Eleven oil workers were killed last summer when a platform blew up in the Gulf of Mexico. By contrast, no one has ever died in a commercial nuclear power accident in this country.

But that's not quite the whole story, is it? The Japan catastrophe is a reminder that while reactors rarely suffer major accidents, the ones that occur create hazards slightly more alarming than a mine collapse.

"If there is a significant release of radiation, then conceivably several thousand people could (get) cancer in the next several years to decades," said Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, in an interview on the Council on Foreign Relations website.

Large areas could be uninhabitable for months. Unlike miners and rig workers, who can quit anytime they choose, most of the people in jeopardy from a nuclear meltdown have no choice.

It's comforting to hear that modern reactors are better designed and that the Japanese experience will help prevent future accidents. But if overly stringent safety regulation is what's keeping nuclear energy down, down is where it's going to stay.

In recent years, there has been talk of a major shift toward uranium-based power, which we can now be sure is not about to happen. When it comes to nuclear energy, hopes are made to be dashed.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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